by Lauren Gilbert
|Louisa Catherine Johnson 1794|
Best known for being the first and (until inauguration day January 20, 2017) the only foreign-born first lady, Louisa Adams did not see the United States until she had been married four years. She was married to John Quincy Adams, son of John and Abigail Adams, in spite of their and her father’s disapproval, and her own doubts. Known for ill health and physical delicacy, she was also capable of decisive action when the situation required. In their long marriage (from July 26, 1797 to John Quincy’s death February 23, 1848), they had several periods of separation and serious points of disagreement; however, she did everything she could to further his career and their letters show an on-going attachment. Her life was a long and fascinating life, filled with adventures, trials and successes. What intrigues me most about her is her rather unique point of view and her inner dialogues.
Louisa Catherine Johnson was born February 12, 1775 to Joshua Johnson and Catherine Newth or Nuth. She was the second child, and second daughter, born in a family of nine children (eight girls and one boy). Born in Maryland, Joshua Johnson was an American merchant, whose business was originally located in Maryland, arrived in England in 1771 at the behest of his employer Charles Wallace to act as the representative of Wallace, Davidson and Johnson, an importing firm they started in Annapolis MD, trading tobacco and mercantile goods. Catherine Nuth was an English woman and possibly the daughter of a shoemaker who was known for her beauty and wit. In November of 1773, their first child Ann (known as Nancy) was born. Joshua’s business practices were highly speculative. In 1778, at the height of the hostilities between America and Great Britain, Joshua took his family to Nantes, France. Louise was placed with Nancy in a convent school where she learned fluent French and was exposed to the Roman Catholic faith. The family returned to London after peace was established, about 1783.
After their return to England, Louisa had to relearn the English language. Louisa was enrolled in boarding school with two sisters, where she did not fit in well, coming out of a French convent school. Her studies included mathematics, stitching and embroidery, drawing and (interestingly) philosophy. While at school, Louisa experienced a period of illness (including fainting) after which she was removed from school and was placed with some family friends, John and Elizabeth Hewlett. Both were highly intelligent and rather radical. John helped wean Louisa from the Catholic ideas she had acquired in France to a more normal Anglican tradition, and Elizabeth was a strong minded woman (not the passive, dependent type admired by Louisa’s father and portrayed in current literature). When Louisa returned to school, she came under the influence of a teacher, Miss Young, who encouraged her to read widely and think for herself and to express her thoughts. An intelligent girl, she developed an interest in science, read controversial authors of the day, and questioned herself and her beliefs as well as her place and the place of women in general in her world. She spent her pocket money on books. After a few years, she and her sisters were removed from school in 1788 due to her father’s facing bankruptcy, about which the girls were kept in ignorance. The girls then had a governess. After some dispute (including concerns about Joshua’s lavish lifestyle), Joshua’s business partnership was extended, but financial problems resulted in the partnership being dissolved in 1789. Joshua established himself on his own. However, things weren’t the same, at least in part due to a decline in the Maryland tobacco trade and increased manufacturing of goods in America.
An interesting side note: a marriage record exists showing that Joshua Johnson married Catherine Newth on August 22, 1785 in Westminster. She had been known as Catherine Johnson, wife of Joshua Johnson, for years, and all of their children’s births were recorded as legitimate accordingly; there is no indication that she was not Joshua’s wife. Certainly, there is no indication that neighbours, friends or their children were aware of any irregularity. However, there is also no known record of an earlier marriage. At least five of their children were born before the recorded marriage in 1785. If that was in fact their only marriage, discovery could have meant scandal if not ruin for Joshua Johnson and his family. Joshua was appointed consul by then-President Thomas Jefferson to act for America in England in 1790 (an appointment which would have been very unlikely if there had been questions about his marriage). This appointment required him to report information about British shipping and preparations for war and locations of British fishing and whaling fleets. He was also to help American seaman who had been impressed by the British when possible and to provide local intelligence of a political nature. In return, Mr. Johnson made it clear that being in that position was expensive and had no hesitation in pursuing remuneration from Mr. Jefferson and Congress.
Mr. Johnson considered himself an American wholeheartedly, and there is an act recorded in the annals of the Maryland senate stating that he and his children were American citizens. He intended, at some future point, to take his family to America and intended his daughters to marry Americans (preferably from the south). Joshua had a very traditional view of the role of women. However, his daughters were raised as proper English girls of well-to-do families were raised: they were educated, taught to sing, play an instrument and dance, how to speak French and how to supervise servants. Although learning to manage servants included learning to cook and to make and mend clothes, the young ladies’ “work” was primarily decorative embroidery. They were prepared for courtship and marriage, to be fine ladies who were cared for, not to be help meets. She and her siblings experienced none of the alarms, privations and practical experience of girls raised in America during the Revolutionary period. This difference in upbringing and outlook would affect Louisa’s entire life. Louisa and her two sisters Nancy and Caroline basically made their social debuts more or less at the same time, with Louisa being fifteen years old and Caroline a year younger. Louisa was a pretty girl, more slender than was strictly fashionable, with large dark eyes. Louisa was known to be shy and somewhat retiring but was very observant of what was going on around her. In spite of Mr. Johnson’s financial fluctuations, the family entertained but, because no formal diplomatic relationship had been established between the United States and Great Britain, Johnson’s access to Parliament or court was restricted to secretaries and lower level officials, limiting his activities as consul as well as his family’s social access.
It wasn’t until August of 1792, when Thomas Pinckney, appointed minister plenipotentiary, finally arrived in London with his wife Elizabeth that the social opportunities arose for the Johnson family. Louisa became a favourite of Mrs. Pinckney and was allowed to visit and stay with her. Mr. and Mrs. Pinckney were welcomed into Anglo-American society and, as a result, the Johnson family also had some access to that society, mingling with members of Parliament, artists and other notables. Pretty, well dressed and well mannered, Louisa and her sisters were allowed to attend the social functions when invited, gaining a social polish and understanding of status. Sadly, Elizabeth Pinckney died two years after arriving in London, to Louisa’s sorrow. Louisa, Nancy and Caroline all had beaus and flirtations. However, Mr. Johnson was quite selective on his daughters’ behalves, discouraging multiple suitors of each. Although not wealthy, the young ladies were raised to expect a dowry of 5000 pounds each, so had no reason to expect that there would be difficulty receiving suitable offers. (There is nothing to indicate that Mrs. Johnson or any of her daughters were aware of the vagaries of Mr. Johnson’s finances.) Louisa did not seem to have been in a hurry to marry, enjoying the social activities and engaging a variety of individuals with her singing and conversation. Interestingly, she felt her intelligence and wide reading was not an asset for a young woman seeking a marriage partner, so she concealed that aspect of herself. It was as a polished young lady that Louisa met John Quincy Adams, resident minister to Holland and son of John and Abigail Adams.
In Part II, we will discuss Louisa’s marriage to John Quincy, her feelings and her experiences.
Britannica.com “Louisa Adams American First Lady” by Betty Boyd Caroli, May 28, 2004. Here.
Find-a-grave on line. “Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams,” biography by William Bjornstad (no post date). Here.
Firstladies.org “First Lady Biography: Louisa Adams.” (No author or post date shown) Here.
Nps.gov “Louisa Catherine Adams (1775-1852).” (no author or post date shown) Here.
Smithsonian.com “Meet the First and Only Foreign-born First Lady: Louisa Catherine Adams” by Jackie Mansky, May 25, 2016. Here.
White House Historical Association on-line. “Louisa Adams.” (no author or post date shown.) Here.
Zocalopublicsquare.org “From a London Alley to the White House” by Louisa Thomas, October 31, 2014. Here.
Heffron, Margery M. LOUISA CATHERINE The Other Mrs. Adams. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Thomas, Louisa. LOUISA The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.
Images from Wikimedia Commons: Louisa Catherine Johnson Here.
About the author: Lauren Gilbert is the author of Heyerwood: A Novel, released in 2011. A second novel, A Rational Attachment, is in process. She lives in Florida with her husband, with some roses and gardenia, herbs and pineapples. Please visit her website here for more information.